HOOVER — Houston Nutt thinks this team is a contender, right now.

Five years removed from Eli Manning’s senior season — when the Rebels went 10-3 and finished the season ranked No. 13 after a Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma State — Ole Miss enters 2008 on the heels of four consecutive losing seasons.

That includes a 3-9 campaign last year, when the Rebels finished with a 17-14 loss to Mississippi State — their second loss in three seasons to the Bulldogs.

But with a new quarterback joining him on the sidelines, Nutt still thinks there could be a few surprises out of Oxford, Miss. this fall.

“That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to change the mindset of our program. We want to win. We want to win right now,” said Nutt. “I think it would be unfair to say, ‘Okay, we're going to rebuild, just kind of gradually.’ I think it's unfair for your seniors.”

Considering the Rebels’ early-season schedule, Nutt’s ambitions could be realized quickly. Their first true test of the year — at Florida Sept. 27 — comes when the Rebels might already be 4-0.

After a season-opening date with Memphis at home, the Rebels travel to Wake Forest and return home for Samford and Vanderbilt.

Later in the season, Ole Miss also hosts South Carolina, Auburn and Mississippi State.

“I like our schedule, especially starting out at home,” said Nutt. “We got some good home games. Then you got some very tough road games.”

The optimism has spread throughout the team.

“Everything is wide open,” said junior defensive tackle Peria Jerry. “There are great players on every team, and you have to get up and get ready to play them, no matter the team.”

“I think you’ll see us scoring more points,” added offensive lineman Michael Oher, a preseason All-SEC selection by the coaches. “There’s so much talent there that I think the sky’s the limit for us. People might underestimate us, but I know there’s talent there, and coach Nutt knows how to put talent in the right spots.”

One important spot for the Rebels this year will be quarterback, where Texas transfer Jevan Snead will take over from Brent Schaeffer, who is now being used as a wide receiver. A prep All-American, Snead has brought excitement to the offensive side of the ball during spring and summer practice.

“I think we have a better opportunity to win games this year, with Jevan at quarterback,” said Jerry. “He’s a really smart quarterback.”

Nutt agreed.

“Jevan Snead brings a lot to our team,” he said. “I think he's highly intelligent. He works extremely hard. I love his leadership. That's where you start. I love his decision-making.”

But the high expectations are tempered somewhat by Snead’s lack of game experience. Since he played in one game as a freshman at Texas, the sophomore has seen only scout team defenses.

“You’re hoping he can just pick right back up where he left off. But more importantly, you're hoping that supporting cast, that defense, receivers, tight ends, backs, will be able to take some things off of him,” said Nutt. “But overall, you just love him under the center. You love him with the ball in his hands because of his decision-making, first and foremost. So I'm excited about Jevan.”

Nutt compiled a 75-48 record in 10 seasons at Arkansas, including 42-32 in SEC play.

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